When Patients are the Teachers, DPT Students Succeed

It’s not class as usual on the third floor of Olin Hall on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. The halls and classrooms serve as a community therapy clinic where grad students enrolled in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program provide essential pro bono therapy services for patients in Peoria and surrounding areas.

The Clinic for Fitness and Function serves two purposes: helping patients with chronic neurologic conditions who no longer qualify for insurance coverage for their physical therapy and giving students opportunities to hone their clinical skills prior to graduation.

However, the best part may be how it promotes health and wellness in the community. This can assist in lowering health care needs and improving community participation, according to Bradley Assistant Professor Carey Donlan, a licensed physical therapist who also directs the clinic.

Founded in 2015, the clinic serves 25 patients each semester. Licensed physical therapists are on hand to observe and support students and patients during therapy.  

Darus Dixon suffered a stroke in 2020 and looks forward to coming to therapy each week. “He enjoys talking to the students about sports and (TV) shows he’s watching,” said his mother, Eleanor Dixon. “It keeps his mind active as well, which is really important.”

The playful banter between Darus and DPT student Jackson Smart keeps the therapy light and fun, while also gaining impressive results. Eleanor has seen her son’s mobility and spirits improve since coming to the clinic and it helps her as his caregiver. “On Tuesdays and Thursdays he’s motivated to get out of bed to come here, and it allows me to tack on a couple of errands after therapy since we’re already out,” she said.

As for Smart, working with these patients has given him confidence and allows him to hone his skills and work on areas to improve while still in the classroom.

“The patients are well-aware we are all still learning, and they let us know what is or is not working and are willing to try anything we want to attempt,” he explained.

“Essentially, we get to help patients with their rehabilitation while they are helping us immensely in our learning journey,” added DPT student Mikaela Antonacci. “A huge part of the learning experience is developing a friendly rapport with the patients to build trust, and it’s evident everywhere you look.” 

Mitch Scott survived a motorcycle accident last May that left him with multiple fractures and burns making it impossible to walk without crutches until recently. He said he’s grateful for the students’ help, joking, “They work my a** off!” 

His wife, Lisa, has seen great strides in his recovery since coming to the clinic. “We are so impressed with the students and it’s a nice atmosphere for therapy,” she said.

“The patients are so motivated to participate in therapy and it reminds me each day why this is the profession I have chosen,” Antonacci said.